I’ve now watched most of the movies from the Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Volume 3 box set – which is rather misnamed since none of the movies really seem to be true gangster films. Anyway, this early Humphrey Bogart offering is my favourite of those I’ve seen so far, along with The Mayor of Hell – which was also made by the same director, Archie Mayo. Judging from the films of his I’ve seen to date, it seems as if he was great at getting that Warner grittiness and working-class atmosphere, and, even when hamstrung by the Hays Code, he still pushed the boundaries as far as he could.
In this exposé of 1930s fascist organisations, Mayo was forced by the Hays office to remove some vital elements, such as explicit references to the ethnicity of the victims targeted by the Legion, a shadowy Ku Klux Klan-like organisation operating in some states of the US at the time. There are no African-Americans in the movie at all, and it’s only hinted that one of the victims might be Polish-Jewish, another Irish Catholic. Mayo even had to include a disclaimer at the start suggesting that the Black Legion was a fictional organisation – although I’m not sure if this was dictated by Hays or an attempt to avoid reprisals by the real terror organisations. In any case, this would have fooled nobody. The real Black Legion had recently been in the headlines over a murder case which provided much of the inspiration for the plot.
After watching the 1932 movie Hell’s House, set in a reform school, I was keen to see this better-known Warner Brothers movie, directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney, Frankie Darro and Madge Evans, which was made the following year. I was delighted to find that this one is included in the excellent Gangsters Collection 3 recently issued by Warner Brothers – a shame for film fans in the UK that it is only available as a region 1 import, though I believe the discs are actually region-free.
Anyway, the print is beautifully remastered, a great change from all the shaky grey pictures and out-of-sync soundtracks I’ve been suffering recently! The commentary by film historian Greg Mank also gives interesting background, though at times I think he gets too fixated on listing all the films a minor actor appeared in rather than focusing on what is happening in the powerful melodrama we’re watching. The most intriguing aspect of his commentary is his focus on how much censorship this film suffered even in the pre-Code area, with various states cutting different lines and scenes, offended by everything from juvenile vandalism to Cagney saying: “Ah, nuts!”
James Cagney and Madge Evans
The spectacular finale, where rioting inmates set fire to the reformatory, was almost completely cut in some states, so that cinema-goers must have had a job working out what was going on.
Cagney plays gangster Patsy Gargan who is given a role as deputy commissioner, nominally in charge of a reform school, as a political favour. However, when he meets the boys and sees how badly they are being treated by the sadistic Mr Thompson (a wildly over-the-top Dudley Digges), Gargan starts to become emotionally involved. As a boy from the slums himself, he identifies with the youngsters and is determined to help them. He joins forces with the saintly reformatory nurse Dorothy (Madge Evans), takes over the running of the reform school and gives the boys a chance to prove themselves through self-government. The experiment goes smoothly and gives hope for the future – but Thompson is determined to get back control.